Updated: Jun 16, 2020
With no real indication of when the world may return to some kind of normality after the end of the COVID-19 lockdowns, we truly are in an unprecedented position, not just in the music industry, but in society as a whole. With many of us working from home and suddenly finding we have a lot more time on our hands, the lack of a normal routine can provide difficulty in staying motivated in the studio sometimes. This is perfectly natural, as the whole world has been turned on its head and no-one really knows what the best approach will be. Whether you’re finding yourself stuck in a rut some days, or you just want some handy tips to make the most of the time spent under lockdown, we’ve compiled a list of 7 tips to stay productive as a producer during this time.
1. Organise Your Samples, Sounds and Projects
Similar to the first point in our 7 Lockdown Productivity Tips for DJs, we highly recommend taking the time to go through your samples, sound libraries and project files, and properly organise everything. Regardless of how long you’ve been producing, we bet you’ll have built up a fair collection of files over the years. Setting aside some time to properly sort through these may not only help improve your workflow but also means you can go through and get rid of the samples you never really use. How many huge sample packs have you seen which probably only have 10% usability? Condense your library to what you’ll actually use, and group favourites together so you can quickly pull them in for inspiration when starting a new project.
Use this opportunity to also sort through your project files, into a system that makes sense to you. You could, for example, create folders for your starter ideas, works in progress, your finished projects, and one for remixes. For the oldest projects that you could never finish, consider taking the best elements from each one into a single, new project file. This can be used as a palate of ideas to draw inspiration from if you hit writers’ block.
Once you’ve organised everything into a system that works for you, consider making yourself a session starter template that can help you get ideas down quickly when you enter the studio. A good workflow is essential to turning ideas into full tracks quickly, and with a streamlined library, making a template will be easier than ever. If you need inspiration for how to get started, grab our Ableton Starter template (please note you'll need a copy of Live 10 Suite for this to work).
2. Get To Know Your Software and/or Hardware
Much like the inevitable sample pack mountain on a producer’s computer, we can guarantee for most there’s an equally expansive plugin mountain accompanying it. There can be a tendency to acquire everything under the sun at the beginning of the production journey, usually in the belief that owning the same gear as the pros must make us just as good. How many of us can truly say we know the ins and outs of all the gear we use to make music?
Whether you’re working with hardware or software, spend some time really getting to know how your equipment works. Read the manual, try deconstructing presets and identify the features that can often be overlooked. Challenge yourself to see how much of a track you can make with just one plugin or synth. Ableton’s Operator is a brilliant example of something powerful to try this with. Create drum sounds from scratch, explore all the different features of the synth, and really push your creativity further than you have before. By restricting yourself to just one or two pieces of equipment that you know inside out, you may just find that your creativity moves in a direction that it hasn’t before.
3. Get into Sound Design
This one ties in nicely with the previous point about getting to know your equipment really well. Presets are an excellent starting point for inspiration, but if you haven’t done so before, it’s a great idea to try building sounds from scratch entirely. Sound design can be an entire art in its own right, and indeed many producers are able to make a living just by doing sound design alone. You may even find you can earn a little income boost by making a great preset pack!
Sometimes you may start out with a particular sound in mind that you want to achieve; on other occasions, you may go in blind with absolutely no intention of what the final outcome should be. Having as little as ten sounds that are entirely your own, which can be quickly recalled across your projects, will go a long way in helping to develop your signature sound.
A great tip we picked up in a recent studio live stream by Jono Grant from Above & Beyond is that sound design can also be a tool for dealing with writer’s block. If you’re working on a track and get stuck, or are just struggling to start a new project entirely, beginning with a sound design session could trigger the inspiration needed to get you working again.
4. Try Remixing
Remixing can be a difficult one to get right. Some argue tracks should just be left as they are, while others believe there are dozens of examples where the remix trumps the original. It definitely takes some practice to get right, but it’s a skill any good producer should aspire to be confident in. Try looking for official remix competitions and websites where you can download the official stems for tracks. There usually won’t be any need for you to submit an entry if you don’t feel confident, although we definitely recommend doing so as you have nothing to lose!
How does one start a remix? This depends entirely on how you work as a producer. Some people might say it’s best to work on tracks that you’ve not listened to more than a handful of times. Other artists are able to take a well-known track they love and truly put their own stamp on it. Like all aspects of production, it’s about finding a way that works for you - don’t be afraid to experiment with different approaches. Some official remix packages released see the original bundled together with re-works in two or three different sub-genres of dance music. Use this kind of opportunity as a chance to take a track in one style and completely flip it on its head!
5. Network With Other Producers, DJs and Promoters
This is another key point shared from our list of 7 Lockdown Productivity Tips for DJs, and a valuable nugget of knowledge we learned from our recent chat with Sam Shepherd from Pioneer. Although the approach will be slightly different for producers, the principle remains the same. Networking is such a vital part of the dance music industry, regardless of how you’re involved. With pretty much everyone stuck at home under lockdown, now is the perfect time to reach out and make connections with others. We suggested that DJs reach out to promoters and other DJs — for producers, we suggest reaching out to labels, to other artists, and to DJs who will be looking for new material to play out (either on their streams or when clubs eventually reopen).
Now is the time to reach out to labels, to DJs who may be looking for promo material, and to artists who can give feedback on your tracks. As Sam said in our chat with him, you might only get a handful of replies for every dozen or so you e-mails you send out — but people are in a far more likely position to reply and respond positively right now than any other time. The same goes for anyone who reaches out to you. Take the time to get back to who you can. After all, we’re all in this together. If you’re unsure about which artists to reach out to, we’ll have our own track feedback service live on the site this coming week, so be sure to subscribe to our socials and follow our blog.
6. Collaborate With Others Online
This one flows off the back of the last point about reaching out to others and networking. If you’ve never done a collaboration before with someone, it’s something we’d highly recommend regardless of the world’s lockdown state. Doing it now just happens to mean there’s more time to be able to dedicate to the project, and there are more people you’ll be able to reach out to who are likely to say yes.
For those of you who are new to collaboration, here’s a couple of pointers on how to make the process as smooth as possible:
Try to work with audio as much as possible (unless you’re still in the early writing stages of your musical elements). The person you’re sending parts to may not have all the same software as you, so if you simply send project files there’s a risk they won’t properly receive the parts.
Always include accompanying MIDI for any tracks you bounce to audio. This will help make sure you both work in the same key, and also gives the other person involved a chance to play around with the parts in more depth.
Send files with minimal processing applied (e.g. sidechaining, excessive reverbs etc). Creative effects are fine if they are integral to a sound, but the majority of processing should be left until the track is ready to be mixed.
Don’t be afraid to let your ideas be changed. Much like getting a second pair of ears on your own productions, the person you’re collaborating with may be able to bring a new direction to your ideas, that ultimately ends up progressing the piece better altogether.
7. Finish Your Ideas
Projects sitting around that are about 80-90% of the way to completion. We all have them.We know that last push and those little tweaks are all that’s needed to get the tracks finished, but we never get around to doing it. Although there may be a temptation to write a wealth of new material when in lockdown, there should equally be as much temptation to tie up unfinished projects. Everyone will have their own process for finishing their projects, but some tips from us would be:
Pick a few tracks that you know are almost at completion, and listen back with completely fresh ears.
Make a note of what you believe is missing from each track, and any final tweaks you’d like to make
Then dedicate a few full-day sessions in the studio to get those changes made.
Force yourself to work on only one project at a time, and don’t move on to the next until you can say you feel confident the last one is done.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help if needed. Getting someone else to listen to your project or your mix can bring clarity to the process, especially when you’ve been invested in the production process for so long.
Sometimes all that’s needed is a bit of a push and a self-imposed deadline to get your tracks over the finish line and to a standard where they’re ready to be sent out.
This list is by no means exhaustive. You might find you already do some, or all of these things anyway. The most important thing to remember is that, despite what some people are insistent about online, this lockdown isn’t all about a productivity contest with others. Everyone will be dealing with this differently, and just like most things in the world of music production, it’s about finding a system that works for you. Some of you will be on furlough, some of you may be homeschooling, some of you might be on the front line as a key worker. If you set out with the intention of only doing one of these things on the list above, then that is just as productive as aiming to do them all.
Hopefully this article can provide some inspiration, and if there’s anything else you think we should be covering, be sure to let us know on social media or in the comments below!